Downtown union has supporters and skeptics

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(Host) A new kind of union effort is under way in Montpelier. For the first time, organizers are attempting to unionize an entire downtown retail district. Supporters say a city-wide union would give workers more job security and better pay and benefits. But business owners say they’ve been singled out in a social experiment that has little support.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) Standing at the corner of State and Main in Montpelier at the only downtown traffic light, you can see two bookstores, a few small boutiques and several restaurants. All are locally owned. No Barnes and Noble. No Starbucks. No McDonalds. It’s the absence of national chains that gives this classic New England community its character.

(Kimberly Lawson) “We all like to have this sort of ideal of downtown businesses that everyone gets along fine and there are never any problems.”

(Zind) From the offices of the Vermont Workers Center in an old manufacturing building in Montpelier, Kimberly Lawson sees a different downtown.

(Lawson) “There are also 500 to 800 people who work downtown, many of whom have to have two and three jobs because they can’t afford to work with any less than that. Many of whom have no health insurance, have no paid vacation and they deserve better.”

(Zind) Lawson is with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. For the past several months she’s been involved in an unusual effort to unionize the Mom and Pop stores of downtown Montpelier.

The union claims – that downtown workers are poorly treated – angers business owners whose employees earn salaries and benefits which are on a par with workers in similar jobs at larger businesses. Many say they’re not opposed to unions, but they don’t think Montpelier needs one.

It’s up to workers in each store to decide if they want a union. Supporters say their immediate goals are modest. Ellen Thompson works at a downtown restaurant.

(Thompson) “For me, to have a union and have a grievance procedure and have a way of going about taking up your problems with the boss and if your boss has problems with you, this is going to provide me with job security.”

(Zind) But there’s no clear consensus on the union among downtown employees. Mark Fournier is a cook at the same restaurant where Ellen Thompson works. Fournier has been in a union before and he doesn’t think one is needed here.

(Fournier) “Knowing a lot of local business owners, they take care of people. I think sometimes unions in a case like that can more hinder you because then you’re stuck to what the union wants.”

(Zind) Union organizers say the workers are spearheading the drive, but business owners are skeptical. Andrew Brewer, who owns a downtown sporting goods store, says the impetus for the union drive isn’t coming from the workers – it’s coming from organizers.

(Brewer) “I support any group of workers right to organize, but I think that confusion is that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening in this case. It definitely seems to be a drive that’s starting from the top down.”

(Zind) Brewer says activists have singled out Montpelier for the kind of social experiment that many in this progressive community find appealing.

In recent years unions have been attempting to branch out, focusing increasingly on organizing retail workers. James Haslam of the Vermont Workers Center says these local businesses will have to fill the void left by the loss of better paying manufacturing jobs.

(Haslam) “If these are going to be our new jobs and we’re going to have a healthy economy and a healthy communities, then these jobs also have to pay at least dignified wages that people can raise a family on.”

(Zind) But coffee shop owner Bob Watson says it’s unrealistic for the union to use the small retailers of Montpelier to create a new class of high paying jobs.

(Watson) “This whole thing is an effort by the union to create a utopian society and they’re going to have a hard time selling this.”

(Zind) In the three months the drive has been underway, one business has volunteered to unionize. Organizers hope several others will follow suit in the short term, but they say it will take a long time to reach a goal they hope will be a model for other downtown business districts.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Montpelier.

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